Analysis-The Lessons of the Election

Is There Another Way to Run Society?

By Eric Lerner

The Presidential election of 2004 abundantly demonstrates the futility of relying on the Democrats.  In the end, Kerry offered absolutely no alternative to Bush-he did not oppose the war, he did not oppose the attacks on civil rights, he did not oppose the vast transfer of wealth from workers to the rich. Since he offered no alternative, he naturally lost. Seventy million potential voters still saw no reason to vote. Backing the "lesser evil" or "anyone but Bush" turned out to be a sure-fire formula for getting Bush again.
Unless workers begin to organize their own independent candidates, the elections will remain nothing more than a grand diversion, sucking up the energies of millions of people who might instead be actually trying to change society. The organizing of independent campaigns that will raise the crucial issue of the war, the attack on our rights, the destruction of the economy remains an absolutely critical task today, in preparing for future elections.

What kind of elections?

The election raised more fundamental problems as well. With the rapid spread of electronic voting, it is now clear that the results of any election-except perhaps a landslide-can always be manipulated with a few strokes of a keyboard. There really is no way to tell if the votes came out as reported-the electronic voting machines left no paper trail to check.  In this country, there can be no illusions left that the existing electoral system by itself can bring about real change. For who will ensure that the votes will be actually counted? And twenty-five million immigrants were not even eligible to vote.
The whole electoral system today is centered on the idea of "choosing leaders who we can trust" to make the right decisions. But that idea of giving the power to make decisions to a  few people inevitably means that those few "leaders" either are the rich and powerful themselves or end up in the pockets of the rich and powerful. Ultimately, workers can't trust leaders--we have to trust ourselves and each other.

Another Way

There is another way of am making decisions, or running a complex society-and that's for everyone participate in making the decision, instead of choosing a few leaders to make the decisions. Such systems of workers democracy have existed temporarily or partially during mass strikes-strikes of many groups of workers at once--and during revolutions.  In Paris in 1870, France as a whole in 1936 and 1968, Russia in 1917, Seattle in 1919, Argentina in 2002 and at many other times and places, workers have organized themselves to decide things democratically.  They have come together in mass meetings at the factory or neighborhood levels, debating decisions and carrying them out locally. They have elected not representatives, but delegates to citywide, regional or national assemblies, members elected for short terms, sometimes only a single meeting,, who often carry mandates to vote a specific way and who can be recalled and replaced at any time.
These democratic organizations, called workers' assemblies, popular assemblies or workers' councils, arise during periods of political and economic crisis and often swept aside, for a few days or for months or years, the existing governments. Unfortunately none of them has ever became permanent ways of running society. Either the strikes ended, or as in Russia, the democratic institutions were replaced with undemocratic ones.
In some cases, like in Seattle in 1919 or in Argentina in 2002, this was because only limited part of the pupation took part in the new institutions. But in many other cases, the main problem is simply that workers had no experience with truly democratic organizations. In this society, nearly all organizations are run hierarchically with leaders making decision and others carrying them out. So when the opportunity for real democracy suddenly arises, there simply is not enough time for even a large section of workers to learn how to make such institutions permanent.

Can we prepare?

Is it possible to prepare for such mass strikes, to allow at lest a minority of workers to experience models of actually democratic organization?  One way is to form class-wide organizations that seek to draw into a democratic group people from all section of the working class, groups that can deliberate what the real interests of the class are.  We need today to decide what is the working-class solution to the plight of immigrants, to the war, to the deterioration of living standards here and around the world--how should the priorities of government be allocated to benefit workers, not the rich?
As such class-wide organizations form, even while they are still small, they can also intervene in the existing electoral process.  Flawed as they are, the elections do capture the attention of at least half of the working class--they can't just be ignored. Instead, movements that have roots in the class, in communities, can use the elections to pose the alternative way of running society. This can happen not only by running candidates, entirely independent of the Democrats and Republicans, who can run as spokespeople for worker's organizations, but also by organizing parallel elections, using our own fairer rules. For example we can set up polling places for non-citizen immigrant to vote.

Our own Elections

Where the anti-war movement, the immigrants' rights movement or other working class movement have the strength, it is not too soon to begin planning how to intervene in the next round of elections. We do not have to again merely criticize the choices offered to us, but we can offer an alternative-not just to the candidates, but to the whole way of running society.